Georgia’s Trailblazing French-Born President Has an Uneven History With Russia

Why you should care

Because Salome Zurabishvili is stepping into a decades-long struggle.

More than a few world power players had one name on their lips: Salome Zurabishvili. Elected in November with nearly 60 percent of the vote, the 66-year-old incoming president of Georgia was called upon Tuesday by everyone from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Already, the tug of war for her affection has begun — and Zurabishvilli isn’t even inaugurated yet. 

That will come on Sunday, and with it the gaze of the West and the East as they look to see what is next for the former Soviet state and its new leader, whose relationship with neighboring Russia will be closely scrutinized. It’s an unlikely path toward significance for Zurabishvilli. Not just because the former foreign minister will be the nation’s first female president. But she’s also a French-born product of the prestigious Parisian school circuit who actually didn’t visit the land of her immigrant parents until 1986, while in her mid-thirties. Now she’s the global face of Georgia at a time where the nation’s pro-Western ties are being stretched even as it seeks inclusion in both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). 

Already, her presidency is mired in conflict from a heated election season, the last direct presidential vote before a new constitution kicks in and makes the office mostly ceremonial. With so much at stake, 25 candidates made a bid for the gig, the largest slate since the nation’s first presidential election in 1991. And tensions were high, with outsiders such as the Council of Europe monitoring whether the election would be conducted fairly. Zurabishvili won in the second round of voting, in no small part thanks to the backing of Georgian billionaire kingmaker Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream Party.

To make Georgia more present is also a way to make Russia less influential in our relations with European partners.

Salome Zurabishvili

But a rival, former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who lives exiled in the Netherlands while facing criminal charges he says are politically motivated, immediately cast doubt on the results, claiming mass electoral fraud and telling his followers to protest and demand a new vote. Some voting-rights groups have alleged the printing of fake ID cards, among other offenses. A violent transition could be devastating to Georgia, as NATO inspectors determine if its government is stable enough to join the ranks of the military alliance — which would oblige the U.S. and other members to come to Georgia’s defense if it’s attacked again. 

Georgia has been a proxy for foreign interests since its separation from Russia. But given her background, Zurabishvili may be well-suited to tackle that problem. Her father was a chairman of the Georgian Diaspora in Paris and had prominent family ties, while her mother was related (through marriage) to the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Georgia. 

 

After attending the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris and Columbia University in New York, she served as a French diplomat to Rome, the United Nations, Brussels and Washington, among other places, before becoming Ambassador to Georgia in 2003. Soon after the country’s peaceful “Rose Revolution,” also in 2003, she was nominated by Saakashvili to serve as his Minister of Foreign Affairs — which set the stage for one of her first standoffs with Russia, in which she was the main negotiator in an agreement to withdraw Russian military bases from the territory of Georgia in 2005. Zurabishvili also helped fortify Georgia’s independence by forming the “New Group of Friends of Georgia,” an organization bringing together eight allied Central and Eastern European nations to support Georgia’s NATO aspirations. 

However, her time leading foreign policy was cut short by Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli, who sacked her in October 2005 after disputes with other Georgian ambassadors and parliament members. That led to a decade in the political wilderness, forming a rebellious political party called Georgia’s Way, which she abandoned in 2010 before later hitching her wagon to Georgian Dream ahead of the 2013 elections. She eventually won a seat while running as an independent in the 2016 parliamentary elections, and in August of 2018 received the backing of Ivanishvili in her presidential bid.

Her November triumph came amid close scrutiny of how she’s handling the bear next door. While her party is still pro-Western, she has also been more sympathetic to Russia than Georgian predecessors. During the campaign Zurabishvili was blasted by opponents for comments that appeared to blame Georgia for the country’s brief 2008 war with Russia. But she’s eager for the nation of around 4 million people to be known for more than its relations with Moscow.

“To make Georgia more present is also a way to make Russia less influential in our relations with European partners,” she told Reuters news agency after the election. “I’m convinced that we can ask much more from our European partners … and I intend to be a more demanding partner for Europeans as well as for our NATO partners.” Just what those demands are, world powers are eager to know.

Read more: How Armenia lost a prime minister in 11 days.

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